Putting Someone in Charge

Back when the Bonneville Power Administration was little more than a gleam in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s eye, J.D. Ross, the Superintendent of Seattle’s public power system, told him:

“Mr. President, a single administrator is better than a board. The sooner you come to a one-man administration, the sooner the government’s power program will reach success. Fix responsibility on one man and remove him if he does not keep faith. Help him if he does.”51

President Roosevelt took the advice, and Bonneville was for many decades an unqualified success. The same cannot be said of salmon management, where splintered authority has prevented any success.

In 1995, the Chair of the Snake River Salmon Recovery Team responded to former Oregon Senator Mark Hatfield’s request to review legislation concerning BPA and salmon. He told the Senator that the legislation was silent on a key question: “Who is in charge?” While “[w]e recognize the popularity of returning these problems to the region. In the short-term, we think that to be unwise.” Failure to achieve regional consensus, he warned, would stand as an insuperable barrier to making any progress in salmon recovery.52

At this point, who is in charge is barely of importance. If any single individual were placed in a position of ultimate regulatory authority over the salmon resource, with a fixed budget less than half what we spend now, that person could make enormous strides in returning salmon the rivers of the Columbia River Basin.

If it were up to me, I would create a Columbia Basin Fish and Wildlife Administration with a Presidentially-appointed administrator, with the power to regulate harvest, hatcheries, and to purchase improvements in dam passage with a budget inherited from the ruins of the current Memorandum of Agreement, and revenues from selling salmon licenses. The new body would replace the Columbia River Compact, the Northwest Power Planning Council (power planning being an anachronism with a free market in electricity), and accompany an outright elimination of federal grants to the menagerie of fish and wildlife authorities, foundations, commissions and centers.

With a single sensible authority, one might finally begin to answer the basic questions about salmon survival and dams that remain unanswered after decades of poorly coordinated, repetitive, and disorganized research. As the Northwest Power Planning Council’s Independent Science Group has emphasized, we need to “[d]evelop estimates of smolt mortality rates assignable specifically to mortality in turbines, tailraces, reservoirs and forebays, to identify areas of highest mortality and to be able to treat them individually with the most appropriate measures”.53 This is just common sense, but it is common sense that has eluded fishery managers for decades. Right now, fishery managers can only guess at which dams cause problems for salmon, and which are not much of a problem.

Despite the elegant simplicity and obvious effectiveness of putting someone in charge, it seems like a goal that is politically impossible to achieve. In November 1995, Congress, led by Oregon Senator Mark Hatfield, directed the Northwest Power Planning Council to report back to Congress on methods to improve salmon governance. They gave the Council 180 days to do this, prompting yet another expensive round of meetings and process, dubbed the “180 day review”. This was the Northwest Power Planning Council’s opportunity to show some real leadership, and propose some real forms that would cut the Gordian knot of competing statutes and agencies. The Council could have come up with proposed federal legislation to really fix salmon governance. Instead, they dropped the ball.

The Council held public hearings throughout the Region. Every interest group but one appeared to acknowledge that management was in disarray. But every interest group but one stated that no legislative changes should be considered. I am proud to report that my clients alone frankly acknowledged that only legislative initiatives would likely make a difference.

The problem seems to be that nobody trusts Congress to pass a law that would make sense. The environmentalists are all afraid the Republicans will decide to sell BPA to the highest bidder or exempt it from all environmental laws. Maybe both. As of 1997, with Republicans afraid to introduce bills that would really reform the Endangered Species Act, this does not look likely.

Exhibiting typical salmon leadership, the Council ducked the “no one is in charge” issue, recommending only minimal changes. Specifically, the Council sought an Executive Order that would give their recommendations more weight at the federal agencies. No institution or leader in the Pacific Northwest has been willing to provide the leadership necessary to rationalize salmon management.

Now that Senator Hatfield has retired, prospects for meaningful reform are even slimmer. The man some regard as Senator Hatfield’s heir-apparent, Washington Senator Slade Gorton, seems to recognize that impossible problems arise from interpreting the Endangered Species Act to require protection of every single "distinct population segment" of salmon. He may even recognize that the rivers of the Pacific Northwest could run full of salmon again, if only we embraced a scientific hatchery-based approach to stocking rivers. Oregon Senator Gordon Smith does not seem to be making salmon recovery reform one of his priorities, instead telling constituents to resort to the courts.

Environmentalists pursuing the commercial harvester’s version of Ecotopia clearly support a new Basin-wide planning board (efforts promoted by Angus Duncan) that would treat the Basin as an "ecosystem", which seems to mean that more regulations of every type are needed. But their command and control approach to environmental regulation is not likely to gain much support. Natural resource groups, knowing the Council’s history, are unlikely to support creating expanded regional authority.

The good news is that if we could just elect a President with some common sense on environmental issues, he could solve the problem administratively by making all the federal agencies work together, and appointing a BPA Administrator with the guts to use the power of the purse to straighten things out. There would be some sniping from the Ninth Circuit, but things would probably work out.

As of late 1997, "reform" efforts seem to be going in the opposite direction, seeking to subordinate single and accountable federal authority in favor of a new "three sovereigns" consensus-based approach. Endless government-to-government negotiations produce impressive treaty-like documents, but diplomatic negotiations cannot put more salmon in the rivers of the Pacific Northwest. Only wrenching reforms of the existing fishery management bureaucracies can.

51 Quoted in R. Neuberger, The Promised Land 107.

52 Letter, D. Bevan to M. Hatfield, Sept. 25, 1995.

53 ISG, Return to the River 445.

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